Recently Vox had a really bad piece up, How a pseudopenis-packing hyena smashes the patriarchy’s assumptions: Lessons from female spotted hyenas for the #MeToo era. The first thing you’ll notice is the crass inverse naturalistic fallacy that seems to be operating here. That is, you think of a state you’d find desirable (in this case, “matriarchy”), and then look at nature to find an illustrative instance to draw some lessons. I don’t always oppose this, but the people sharing the Vox piece are also the sort who’d find it “problematic” if others did the same (e.g., lobsters).
Reading the piece, I thought back to the fact that mammals as a whole tend to be rather polygynous, with males investing far less in their offspring than, for example, birds. This is why genomic imprinting and sexual genetic conflict is a thing for our broad class of tetrapods. I happen to believe humans are rather different in nature because of our evolutionary history from our mammalian cousins. Also, cultural forces are important to us. Our social complexity is hard to understand without acknowledging our plasticity, even though that plasticity is bounded by our dispositions.
But Katie Herzog in The Stranger reports that researchers who study hyena behavior are angry about the Vox piece because it gets the science all wrong.
This is entirely expected. The author is “a Ph.D. student in microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard University.” Someone who has this particular training can’t be expected to be up-to-date on the latest literature in zoology and behavioral ecology, let alone organismic knowledge about a particular species (usually, one might make an exception if she was studying the microbiome of hyenas!).
Science is very specialized. I can’t speak for others, but just because someone is a “biologist” doesn’t mean that they really know much about biology in a broad sense. Most biologists outside of population genetics have somewhat woolly intuitions about population genetics. I know the difference between a dendrite and an axon, but I don’t know much about neuroscience.
When a scientist opines on a field in which they have some distant relationship to, such as a microbiologist offering their thoughts on the relevance of the evolutionary and behavioral insights from hyenas, be very careful, because whether they know it or not they are laundering their authority from one discipline into another where it does not apply. A few years ago a scientist on Twitter with a background in ecology was explaining to an undergraduate that “epigenetics has rewritten the genetics textbooks.” This was just flat out wrong.
Many ecologists have as much understanding of genetics as a layperson, and many geneticists have as much understanding of ecology as a layperson. Yes, most ecologists have probably taken a genetics class as an undergraduate, but they don’t know the literature, nor do they think much about genetics day to day. Similarly, most geneticists have probably taken an ecology class as an undergraduate, but they don’t know the literature, nor do they think much about ecology day to day. And really, classes aren’t worth much. I’ve taken introductory and advanced ecology courses on the undergraduate level, and graduate level ecology courses. I still don’t know much about ecology.
And these specializations are unfortunately quite narrow. I don’t study translational mechanisms in yeast. Talk to me about population genetic inference, especially in the context of diploid organisms which reproduce sexually.
It’s unfortunate that many science journalists are generalists who have a difficult time navigating specialized disciplines. But at least science journalists are not going to present themselves as experts. They are conscious of their limitations. I wish many people with a scientific background were too.